Every few months we get to see a tech dude offer excruciating testimony to grumpy members of Congress. The tech dude tries, with varying degrees of arrogance, to explain his world; the congresspeople recite their questions; in the end, no one seems notably changed by the experience. There are many ways to understand these interactions—East Coast versus West Coast, lawyers versus engineers, political narcissists versus corporate narcissists—but I think the core conflict is between batch culture and event loop culture.
In the beginning of computing, batch processing reigned supreme. You would gather your stack of punch cards, wait in line for your turn at the giant electronic brain, feed it your data and instructions, then wait minutes or days for its digital gears to grind out a response. Each batch had a discrete Before and After: You did a thing, the computer did a thing, you went back to gathering punch cards. Then came the event loop: The electronic brain—now small and affordable enough to sit on your desk!—would wait for you. You would do something (type a key, press a button, or later, click a mouse) and it would respond, right there in the moment, painting a letter on the screen or starting up a video.
Over the years, this bifurcation—batch versus loop—has become a way that I classify the world. Banks are batch, with their slow resolution of accounts at the end of the day. (Oh, they’ll tell you they offer real-time this or that, but when you dig in you’ll discover they save stuff on magnetic tapes.) Crypto, constantly transacting in response to users sending messages with magic tokens, is much loopier, a 24-hour reactive, never-ending event. Books, which take years to produce and come out long after they’re newsworthy, are batch, as are albums; livestreams on TikTok are loop.
Congress, as a policymaking body, is basically pure batch. If you’ve ever seen the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon with the bill on Capitol Hill, you know that our federal government is essentially a very expensive and inefficient content management system for producing legal documents. You put all the protests, debates, investigations, meetings, and procedures into the CMS, and out comes a shining act, law, or, every half-century or so, even an amendment. Modern tech, meanwhile, is pure event loop. That’s true not only of the obvious stuff, like social media and mobile gambling, but AI too. Though it starts with giant batch processes to create models, the resulting product is event loop: Ask it to draw a picture of a surfing ocelot and it draws one, just like that. Loop has room for reaction. Loop is live. Loop is what the kids crave.
So when the Zuckerbergs, Dorseys, and Altmans go before Congress, I see loop people in a batch world. In their universe, vast numbers of humans do trillions of little things; the tech people look at the metrics and dashboards, then build software that reacts to those things. Sometimes vicious factions break out among their users with terrible real-world effects, and they feel bad about that, but that’s humans! The difference between tech and government is that they see time in totally different ways.
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Books and albums are batch. TikTok livestreams are loop.
Personally, I’m a batch person in a loop world. I am slow, I like to write memos, and I think of computers as machines to make things, not as always-on experience generators. I still believe that things are more real when you print them out. My children, on the other hand, have grown up believing that technology is responsive, reactive, social, self-arranging, and freely available. “Dad,” my son said, “I’d like to touch less grass.” His sister makes apps with her friends. She recently asked me why anyone would pay for software. They keep telling me about DLC (downloadable content). Will I tell them I used to rent a VHS player to plug into my TV so I could watch a single movie at home? God, Dad. That’s so batch.
Meanwhile the loops keep getting faster, more reactive. A musician friend was telling me recently about the album he wants to make, and at one point I blurted out: “No one will ever care about albums again. Streaming ruined it. You’re basically your own tribute act when you make one.” We were both sad because I was right. Albums, record stores, cover art—all are artifacts of Batchworld. It’s OK, though. He has been selling algorithmically mixed music NFTs recently. Each one is unique to the owner, and you can hear it in your browser. He’s got some money for the first time in years. He’s still going to make another album, though.
This article appears in the September 2023 issue. Subscribe now.